The average human brain weighs only about two and a half pounds, yet consumes as much as a fifth of all the body’s energy. This very important organ also has unique nutritional requirements – and if these are not met adequately, the results can include impaired mental function, irritability, frequent headaches and even diseases such as clinical depression. While following a healthy diet is not always the easiest option, it is one aspect of everyone’s health that’s possible to make a habit of paying attention to, and will, in the long run, save piles of money in the form of savings on medication and doctor’s fees. While most people have a fairly good idea of what to eat (and what to avoid) when it comes to maintaining their hearts and arteries, fewer realize that their nervous system also needs a few particular nutrients to keep operating at its best.
Potassium is chemically similar to sodium, found in table salt and processed food, and both play a role in the way nerve cells generate electrical pulses for communication. Most people in the First World consume excessive amounts of sodium but not enough potassium, and an imbalance in this ratio is a major cause of high blood pressure, reduced memory function and less blood flowing through the brain.
Good sources of potassium include bananas, plantains, and oranges – the bad news being that reaching the recommended daily intake means consuming as many as ten bananas. Supplements are another option and are sometimes prescribed for patients suffering from dementia.
Like potassium and sodium, calcium ions are essential to normal nerve function. A lack of this mineral will often cause a patient to exhibit anxiety or instability in their moods, but very high levels of calcium in the blood can also cause harm. Three cups of milk contain the recommended daily allowance for adults, although reasonable amounts are also found in various vegetables (particularly leafy greens such as spinach and kale), nuts and seeds. For vegans, tofu is an excellent plant-based source.
When it comes to minerals, how much a person ingests is not the only important factor: how much of what is eaten is actually absorbed and used by the body is more significant. In the case of calcium, vitamin D is expended in taking it in, so that a lack of sunlight can cause calcium deficiency even in someone who apparently consumes a lot of it. Other steps to take include spreading out the intake of calcium throughout the day, since too much hitting the digestive system at once means that less will be absorbed.
As a person gets older, their brains show a reduction in the amount of a chemical called myelin in their brain cells, which is linked to accelerated brain aging and shrinkage. Consuming enough vitamin B-12 can slow down this process and even prevent conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease from taking root. Furthermore, B-12 plays an important role in cell metabolism throughout the body, including nerve cells.
Vitamin B-12 deficiency is a particular problem for vegetarians since the best sources of it are meats, shellfish, eggs, and dairy products. Even those who eat meat may be suffering from this condition without realizing it, since it is not easily diagnosable until its effects are permanent and debilitating. Apart from supplements in pill form, many breakfast cereals are fortified with B-12. It is an excellent idea to consult a doctor before starting on B-12 supplements, as they may induce harmful interactions with various medications.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Dieticians will generally encourage people to include less fat in their diet, but all fats are not equally bad, and some are truly essential. In particular, there are some chemicals our bodies need but cannot manufacture by itself, of which omega-3 is one.
As with potassium and sodium, it’s important not only to consume enough omega-3 fats, but also maintain a balance between it and its chemical cousin, omega-6. While both are found in animal sources – particularly “oily” fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines – their relative concentrations vary based on factors such as whether beef is grass-fed or grain-fed. A diet high in fresh fruit, vegetables and whole grains is also capable of providing a person with sufficient omega-3
Although omega-3 is beneficial for the body in numerous ways, it is particularly important to mental function. A chronic lack of this vital chemical can lead to diseases such as bipolar disorder, depression, ADHD, schizophrenia and developmental impairments. For this reason, consuming sufficient quantities of this essential fatty acid is particularly important for breastfeeding mothers and growing children.
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Changing your eating habits (not to mention those of your family) can be a daunting task, so making small consistent efforts will likely yield better results than trying for an instant lifestyle makeover. It’s not necessary to start planning your meals with a spreadsheet – containing your calorie consumption to a reasonable level, adding more fruit and vegetables and varying your diet as much as possible are all good starting points for those concerned about their brain’s health, not only next month but well into old age.